Creative Disruption in Paradise

ParadiseOn-line commentators have now discovered creative disruption – or, more aggressively, creative destruction – the price of progress as new technology and methods disrupt the comfortable status quo. The innovation is not usually the result of customer demand, but of imaginative foresight by some entrepreneur. As Henry Ford is said to have said, “If I asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said ‘a faster horse.’”

You can find a startling example of 19th century creative disruption in Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), published in 1883, but set in the time of Louis Napoleon about 20 years earlier. Baron Haussmann is dismembering the old Paris of narrow streets and opening up the broad avenues we enjoy today. Light, air, fast movement – shopping! An ambitious young man,Octave Mouret, foresees how it can be and comes into the resources to make it happen. Don’t stock your goods and wait for your price – turn them over once, twice, thirty times a year, taking a small profit each time. The system depends on volume and volume comes from wooing the customer, giving the ladies (for whom this paradise has been designed) reasons to return again and again. The individual shopper may feel seduced, but Mouret has actually created a machine oblivious to humane desires.

But the furnace-like heat with which the shop was ablaze came above all from the selling, from the bustle at the counters, which could be felt behind the walls. There was the continuous roar of the machine at work, of customers crowding into the departments, dazzled by the merchandise, then propelled towards the cash-desk. And it was all regulatedwith the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.

Some critics, including Mouret’s fictional enemies, believe that he really hates women and his retail machine is a form of revenge, but I don’t think it is as simple as that. As he tours his emporium, Mouret expresses joy in the successful logic of his creation. He has power and he has been able to work his will to control a great enterprise. He is satisfied to be what he is.

He repeated that he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.

Young Denise, the naïve sales girl from the country works in the Paradise and experiences it with a total lack of the control which gives Mouret such pleasure. She sees what it costs, yet regards it as inevitable.

While pretending to joke, Denise produced sound arguments: the middlemen – factory agents, representatives, commission-agents – were disappearing, this was an important factor in reducing prices; besides, the manufacturers could no longer exist without the big shops, for as soon as one of them lost their custom, bankruptcy became inevitable ; in short, it was a natural development of business, it was impossible to stop things going the way they ought to, when everyone was working for it, whether they liked it or not.

Although Denise sees the Paradise as a natural development, a single destination where everything is for sale, she alone is not for sale. She never really explains why except to say that that is what she is, just as Mouret is what he is. You must read the novel to see how Zola successfully maneuvers the final disruptions of the relationship between Mouret and Denise.


‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ Covers

Au Bonheur des Dames was published in 1883 and has been translated as The Ladies’ Paradise, Ladies’ Delight, Shop Girls of Paris etc.

For images of other covers please look on the Images page.

The Rise of the Department Store: Zola’s Au bonheur des dames

zola-bonheurAu bonheur des dames, Zola’s exploration of the modern department store, is so very relevant in these early years of the 21st century, even though it was written over a century ago. Like the good naturalist novel that it is, Au bonheur studies what happens when mega-stores move in to old, settled neighborhoods and drive the small businesses there into bankruptcy. With the rise of department stores around this time, small-scale merchants with umbrella shops, say, or shops that specialized in scarves or hats, had no chance. The department stores could buy in bulk and undercut their small competitors.

Through the course of the novel, we watch as, one by one, the small shops surrounding the “Bonheur des Dames” store shrivel up and die. Of course, there’s one holdout, but he hangs on out of sheer desperation, rather than hope. Playing out against this backdrop of commercial carnage is the developing love affair between Octave Mouret, the owner of the store, and his lowly employee Denise Baudu. Ironically, Mouret, who prides himself on knowing what women want and how to get their money, finds himself ultimately conquered by a poor and powerless young woman (ahh c’est la vie).

As with most Zola novels, though, this short summary doesn’t do justice to the almost overwhelming amount of detail and information that coalesces into a rich picture of mid-19th-century Paris. Like my man Herman Melville, Zola uses a boatload of facts and in-depth descriptions to immerse us in a particular place in time; in Au bonheur, Zola treats us to detailed discussions of staff responsibilities, retail innovations, pricing and supply chains, and the almost infinite varieties of fabrics and laces and styles and textures offered to the customers. By the time you finish this novel, you feel like you’ve just been in Paris for a year. And you’ll want to go shopping.

(cross-posted at Bookishly Witty)